East Anglian Ancestry for far-away genealogists

User:Ras52, OpenStreetMap, Amitchell125 [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This guide is really aimed at distant cousins with ancestry from the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It's the perspective of a present day East Anglian from the ground.  My ancestors were the ones that usually stayed in East Anglia.

First - definitions of what constitutes East Anglia.  One modern governmental definition: "the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire".  Estate Agents, trying to sell properties in idyllic East Anglia, often go even further, also including Huntingdonshire, Rutland, parts of Lincolnshire, and Essex.  The ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia (see above image), didn't really include these add-ons.  I go with that, but include parts of northern-most Essex.  Why?  Because on the ground, those areas still feel (and sound) East Anglian.  Norfolk, Suffolk, eastern Cambridgeshire, and northern most Essex.  That feels East Anglian.  But it's heart remains the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.

East Anglia is situated on the North Sea coast of South-East England.  It is lowland.  A chalk bed lazily slopes down from west to east, with a layer of  boulder clay on top running through mid Norfolk and high Suffolk.  I say high, nowhere in East Anglia is high.  This is Low Country.  Our hills are in the main, very gradual, slight affairs.  To the west of the chalk bed, lays even lower country - the ultra-flat landscape of the East Anglian Fens.  Wetlands that have been drained for agriculture in rich peat and silt soils.

East Anglia is rural.  It is agricultural.  Largely arable, with favoured crops of wheat, barley, sugar beet, and oil seed rape.  Medium size agri-business fields of crops across a very gently rolling lowland landscape, with parish church towers around every corner, and a buzzard in every copse of trees.  Ancient narrow roads with bordering hedgerows, twist around long forgotten open fields and farmsteads.  Mixed farming enters the river valleys, where cattle are fattened on rich grasses.  Intensive pig and poultry broiler units also dot the landscape.

What about the East Anglians?  That is one of the subjects of this post.

East Anglia isn't on the road to anywhere, but East Anglia.  You don't pass through East Anglia on the way to the Industrial North, Scotland, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham, or London.  It's far out on the periphery of Hub.co.uk.  It's main urban centres are the small City of Norwich, and the towns of Ipswich, Kings Lynn and Bury St Edmunds.  They are all, 'small'. Norwich comes in at a lowly 48th in English town by population size.  You see, small.  Far more medieval towers than modern high rise towers.

After the urban centres, most modern East Anglians probably live in or near the market-towns.  These are really tiny "towns" some little more than villages.  Some are lovely, ancient, with unspoiled centres and market places.  Places such as Wymondham, Holt, Diss, Woodbridge, Swaffham, Beccles, Pulham Market, Laxfield, Long Melford, etc.  There must be dozens scattered across East Anglia.

Wymondham market-town centre.

The rest of the East Anglians live in the countryside, outside of the market-towns.  Trying to explain this to American genealogists where the old Roman ideal of planned city prevails, is difficult.  We have villages.  We have lots of them.  Most are early Medieval in origin.  They are set in ancient divisions known as parishes.  Many East Anglians now live in suburbs on the edges of towns - but until a century or two ago, most of them lived further out in the countryside, in these villages.

How many villages have we got in East Anglia?  Would you believe, somewhere around 1,300, with over 700 in the county of Norfolk alone.  They absolutely dot the East Anglian countryside.  Living in the countryside, in farmsteads and villages - that really is the Anglo-Saxon way of Life.  Look at the below snip of a part of south Norfolk.  See all of those red circles.  Villages.  The Blue circle is a market town on the old Roman road (A140).

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Until a few centuries ago, most East Anglians lived in the countryside.  Most of these villages will have a medieval church.  There are more than 600 of them in Norfolk.  They'll also often have a later non-conformist chapel as well.  Over 600 medieval religious buildings in Norfolk!  Possibly the highest density of medieval churches anywhere in the World.  This is because Medieval Norfolk was central.  It wasn't so peripheral before the Industrial Revolution.  The medieval City of Norwich was the second or third largest city in England after London.  All of those empty medieval churches.  Where did the populace go?  Some of them may have been your ancestors.

How about the origins of the East Anglians themselves?  Who are they?

There are very few "Celtic" place-names in East Anglia, other than the Ouse river system.  Most of the villages and place-names in East Anglia are of Anglo-Saxon origin, dating to between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, around 1,200 years ago.  In addition there are a number of place-names that are Anglo-Danish in origin, dating to the 9th - 11th centuries AD, with a cluster of them in eastern Norfolk.  See the map below, of the area called Flegg, an Anglo-Danish place-name in itself.  All of those -by place-names - they were most likely settled by "Viking" Danish immigrants during the 9th to 11th centuries.

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Previous to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century AD, the region that we know call East Anglia had for centuries,  been a part of the Western Roman Empire.  Even further back than that, at the turn of prehistory to written history, the northern parts of the region were the home of the Iceni tribal federation, and the southern part to the Trinovante.  These Late Iron Age peoples were descended from an immigration event from the Continent into the British Isles that took place some 2,000 years earlier.  Call their ancestors Bell Beaker, Celt, British Celt, or Ancient Briton - their DNA is still the most dominant aspect of the modern British, and even English gene pool.  The Roman occupation appears to have had little impact on their genetic make up.

Then the Anglo-Saxons arrived.  They came from what is now Northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.  Early Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in East Anglia, have their closest correlation on the Continent with artifacts in Northern Germany, south of the Danish border.  This was the origin of the Angles - which the early kings of East Anglia clearly identified with.  Saxo-Frisians in what is now the Netherlands were well placed to migrate to the region, and contributed to this migrant community.

The most recent genetic studies suggest that rather than displace the Britons in the lowlands, that the Anglo-Saxons admixed with them in marriage.  Indeed, as I said, genetically, the DNA of the earlier Britons is still the majority component, even in England.  There was no genocide.  However, an Anglo Saxon identity, culture, and language was adopted by all during following centuries.

West Stow reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk.  The birth of the East Anglian village.

Not all of the Continental DNA in East Anglia arrived here during the 5th or 6th centuries AD.  Some may have already been here from the Empire, or earlier.  Some arrived during the 9th to 11th century settlement of Danes in the region.  Then the Normans.  The Medieval saw Angevins from Aquitaine, and other French arrive.  Then during the 16th century, there was a significant settlement of Elizabethan Strangers (protestant refugees) from what is now the Netherlands.  Huguenots followed.  Asides from these noteable immigration events, there would have been a drip-drip feed of foreigners into the region.  Dutch herring fishermen and engineers, Lithuanian timber and fur traders.  Drovers from the Midlands.  Indeed surname studies suggest that during the late medieval and following Tudor periods, there were a number of people moving into the Norfolk countryside - from the Continent, but also from other parts of England such as for example, Yorkshire.  East Anglia isn't on the way to any where, but neither is it totally isolated from ingress of new settlers.

The consequence of the location of East Anglia in the North Sea World, is that Genetic Genealogists looking at their DNA "Ethnicity Estimates" or "Ancestry Composition" results might see high levels of DNA matching the panels for the Continent, rather than for the British Isles.

How did the East Anglians live?

Many genealogists proudly brag of documented descent from early medieval kings and emperors (usually Charlemagne).  The lines that they trace in order to claim this must be those of the minority of the medieval European population - the titled and landed nobles, with their heraldic records.  This elite weren't really representative of the entire population.

East Anglians were mainly rural, untitled, and really didn't have a lot of wealth.  During the feudal Medieval, most East Anglians would have been within the ranks of the common peasantry, owing a range of fealties to their lords, in return for protection.  Not all were particularly free, although there were high percentages of freemen peasants in eastern Norfolk.  Others were tied in levels of servitude to their manors.  They tilled their strips in the communal open field systems.  They grazed their meagre livestock on the commons.  They also worked the lord's land, supplied him with sheep fencing, ale, fuel, and grains.  When called on, the men would have served the lord in wars against the Scottish, French or other houses.  Life was hard, brutal, and often too short.  However, the abundance of medieval churches across the region testify to the wealth that their labour actually created.  It testifies to the success of their medieval economy here in East Anglia.

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter c1325-1335 f74v - BL Add MS 42130

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.74v  See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Originally published/produced in England [East Anglia].

Most peasant families didn't even adopt hereditary surnames until around the 13th to 15th centuries AD.  Except for brief mentions in manorial records, tithes, and polls, most don't even enter the records until 1538, when parish registers were introduced with the English Reformation.  So unless you tie into an aristocratic line - you are not going to trace your East Anglian ancestry much further back than 1550.  Indeed, many parish registers are damaged, lost, or destroyed.  Many records are illegible.  There is no guarantee of making it back that far.  I find it difficult to trace back rural East Anglian roots with a high degree of certainty much earlier than 1720, for the lack of correlative evidence from censuses, transcripts, etc.
Hoard of 12th century (Henry III) hammered silver coins recovered in Norfolk, and recorded by my late father.

Not all East Anglians worked the soil.  There were skilled crafts people such as the cordwainers, potters, smiths, and weavers.  Some based in villages, others in the towns.  Protestant beliefs and practices spread across Eastern England following the Reformation, particularly in urban areas.  This was re-enforced during the late 16th century AD, when protestant refugees from the Roman-Catholic crown, in the Netherlands, were invited to settle in Norwich, Ipswich, and elsewhere across East Anglia and south east England.  One poll of Norwich at this time suggested that as much as one third of the City population consisted of these Dutch and French protestants.  They were invited not only as allies against Roman Catholic Europe, but to bring their valuable crafts and skills to East Anglia.

Their protestant vigour was infectious.  East Anglia became a hot bed of Protestantism.  As the Crown and Establishment turned down the Reformation, opting for keeping Conservative values in their Anglican Church, so the Protestants ... protested.  Some hopped back over the North Sea to the Netherlands, which had for the time being, repelled the Catholic powers.  However, some of these most puritan protestants then asked the English king for permission to set up their own colonies in New England.  Permission was readily granted.  The Puritans left Eastern England en mass.  The point though is that this particular chapter of East Anglians migrating away, was centred in main, on urban classes, skilled workers, and  those that could actually afford the voyage.

Norfolk saw little bloodshed during the 17th century English Civil War, as it was safely Parliamentarian. Except for a riot and explosion in Norwich when the Puritans tried banning Christmas. 

Back to the countryside...

Between the 16th and 19th centuries AD, the descendants of the old East Anglian peasantry had to adapt to a number of economic changes that were not in their interest.  The great land owning families were enclosing and renting out their lands to free tenant farmers, breaking up the old manorial estates.  Some fields were enclosed, and the peasants found themselves replaced by more profitable sheep.  Even the commons were enclosed and privatised.  While the more entrepreneurial freemen rented out land to farm themselves, as tenant farmers, many others found themselves surplus to requirement, and alienated from the soils that had fed their ancestors for generations.  They became farm hands, the great army of "ag labs" (agricultural labourers) of the 19th century censuses.  Not all  labourers were equal.  The more fortunate, loyal, and skilled might find themselves almost in full employment, with a regular wage and a tied cottage.  The less fortunate were the paupers.  Seasonal workers that had to constantly look for work, or beg for parish relief.  The rural poor didn't always accept these changes without resistance.  In 1381, Norfolk and Suffolk peasants joined in a rebellion that threatened London.  In 1549, Norfolk peasants rose into an army that captured the City of Norwich.  In 1830, East Anglia was a centre of the Swing Riots.

Many agricultural labourers and their families still married and baptised as Anglican at the Church of England, but although much of the puritanical fervour had by now swept away from East Anglia, many were increasingly turning to non-conformist chapels of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.  The Primitive Methodists were particularly successful in East Anglia during the 19th Century.

If you had rural working class East Anglian ancestors during the 16th to 19th centuries, imagine them very poor.  Following the Agricultural Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, new machines and technologies replaced much seasonal and manual labour on the fields.  The commons, where the poor had grazed their animals had been taken away.  Poor relief was ceased, and the desperate were forced to enter prison-like workhouses, in order to be fed - families split into separate dormitories, the poor harshly penalised, and discouraged from asking for relief.

How the land owners, farmers, and parsons saw it - the East Anglian countryside simply had a large surplus of unwanted labour.  They were encouraged to leave.  Some to far away colonies - Australia and Canada.  Others to feed the factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution in places like Newcastle, Yorkshire, or London.  For many - the railways arrived just in time to escort them away.

Example of East Anglian Accent.

Researching rural East Anglian ancestry

Understand that:

  1. Most East Anglians were not titled, nor recorded in heraldic records.
  2. Parish registers online are incomplete.  Not all parishes or registers have even been digitally photographed.
  3. Some parish registers have been lost, destroyed, or are badly damaged.
  4. The transcriptions of the registers on some online genealogical services are sometimes incorrect.  Always if you can, try to see scans of the original registers online.  Because of these frequent errors, the databases often fail on searches.
  5. If your ancestor was rural, use OpenStreetMap.org and magnify down to get to really know the area that they lived in.  Appreciate distances by foot.  People did sometimes move more than several miles - but very often in East Anglia, didn't!  It's not unusual to see one family in the same small parish for several generations.  Sometimes marrying cousins.  It was the arrival of the railways, that sometimes allowed families to finally escape the rural poverty.
  6. You find Harry X marries Mary Z in a village.  You search the online databases for his baptism (and parentage).  You find a baptism of a Harry X in the same county.  You add him and his parents to your tree.  Problem is ... the baptism was 23 miles away, and you don't realise it, but there were a number of Harry X at the same time, several closer to the place of marriage - you have made an error.  You just saw the one on the database.  More research might have uncovered a more likely candidate, with siblings named like his children, in the village next to that in which he married Mary Z.  Getting to know the area really well may have made you search harder.
  7. Illegitimacy is a surprise to some.  You will see plenty of it in 18th and 19th century East Anglia.  It was generated by poverty, poor housing, poor education, and desperation.
  8. Most of your rural working class ancestors will be illiterate, and sign with an X.  Education of the labourers was discouraged.  However, now and then, you will find one that served as the parish clerk.  Some could read.
  9. Widows and widowers, with children in tow, would frequently remarry quickly.  Support for the children was vital to keep them out of the workhouse.
  10. Infant mortality can be very depressing or sobering.  Expect some high rates.
  11. Don't be surprised to find ancestors listed as paupers, or as inmates in workhouses, gaols, or even the asylum.
  12. Check non-conformist church records, as well as the Anglican.  The Methodists operated by "circuits".